VI. THE FINAL LEG
The following Friday saw another low moving across the North of Scotland into the North Sea and a forecast of fresh to strong north-westerlies on Saturday. Sunday seemed to show the most prospective promise and at 06.25 on Saturday morning the shipping forecast for Thames was westerly 7 to 8, decreasing 5 to 6 later, which confirmed our thoughts. However, David had a different tale from RAF Honington who gave a more moderate force for the Saturday and said that the then westerly breeze would come round temporarily to the SW before veering NW again, and that there would be a much stronger wind on the Sunday. Honington prevailed and George’s wife Felicity was persuaded to come with us.
Completely re-stocked with sandwiches and sherry, we arrived at Ramsgate station from London at 11.45am on the Saturday morning and caught a taxi to the harbour. Merlin was the same as ever and the shower man had kept a good eye on our gear. It wasn’t long before we had the dinghy back in the water and were ready to stow for sea, and an hour after disembarking on Ramsgate Station we were under way once more.
We had an hour and a half of flood to take us round the North Foreland, then the whole of the ebb to run us down to Harwich. As the wind was westerly and the tide would be high we decided to take the “inner” route through the sands across the Estuary. This would bring us through the North Edinburgh channel, down the Barrow Deep a little way, over the Sunk Sand, then across the Black Deep and the Swill, past the North tip of the Gunfleet and finally in to Harwich by the Medusa Channel. This route saves about four miles on the more normal “outside” way round the Kentish Knock and would give us that day the best chance of avoiding a beat for the last leg. It was also something David and I had always wanted to do and hadn’t tried in Beachcomber (35 feet loa and drawing 4ft 3ins) - a good added reason for it – and finally, this shorter route would give us the best chance of getting back to Harwich before dusk and in time for a drinks party that evening at John and Sally Williams’ in Erwarton!
The tide swept us round the Foreland, the wind eddying round it too so that we didn’t feel its true direction — or force (about 4) — until we were clear of the headland. There aren’t many “capes” on the British coast that really do seem like points when you get there but the North Foreland is one of them. I’ve always been fascinated by the contrast of the grey cliffs and the waves below them with the spruce villas and their well kept gardens above which bring Buchan’s “Thirty Nine Steps” so vividly to mind.
We could see the change in the colour of the water and the shape of the waves as we hit the main stream north of the lighthouse and were soon swept round and over the edge of the Margate Sand before we crossed the channel to the Tongue Tower. Twin sister to the Roughs, this still sits guarding the entrance to London River, silent and aloof but waiting perhaps for another hour of need. In the meantime the Tongue lightship performs a more practical service protecting the few ships still bound for Tilbury from sudden grounding on the sands.
We found the North Edinburgh’s entrance with little trouble, as other sailors were using it and a Trinity House Yacht was inspecting the buoys. We were close hauled as we went through it, the wind having come round to the west north west, and on one sharp little wave we took the biggest bucketful of the whole voyage over the windward bow. Sandwiches took a soaking and Felicity got a taste of the baling routine. On another occasion, a little surprise sent the beer cans flying and we needed a second wave to bale away the “closing time on Saturday” whiffs from the bilge.
The biggest landmark on the sands by the North Edinburgh just to the north west of the channel was a tall triangular shaped structure which stood out thirty feet or so from the water at a skewy angle of twenty degrees, resembling nothing so much as an overgrown and very drunken wireless mast. We couldn’t work out at all what it could be, as it warranted no mark on the chart, and only when we passed close by did we think it must be the recently wrecked pirate radio ship with her antennae standing up still from the water.
One of the yachts that crossed the Edinburgh ahead of us carried straight on over the Barrow Deep, bound for the Crouch, and was swept so fast down the channel as she did so that we thought there would be no point our trying to cross over to the Sunk too soon. Instead we turned tail down the Black Deep and whipped along with the spinnaker for a bit and Felicity on the helm, sighting the Middle Sunk Sand Tower very shortly to port. We crossed over just by it, where the bank is at its deepest. Close by and very gaunt the beacon seemed, all alone on the sands, a little wooden framework with a shelter on top looking for all the world like a prisoner of War watchtower escaped from its prison. Felicity took photos of it but we later found, much to our annoyance, that there’d been no film in the camera so it remains instead in our memories.
We pointed about twenty degrees off our course as we crossed the Black Deep and the Swin to the Gunfleet, heading for the Gunfleet beacon, and still no sign of the Essex coast was there to greet us. Eventually it slowly rose up, first the square block of flats at Frinton and then finally the coastline and the Naze, Home Waters at last and was it our imagination, or did Merlin give a little leap forward on her leash? It may have been the sherry, for it was getting a little cold and had been cloudy since the Sunk, and the inner warmth was most welcome.
Crossing the Gunfleet on the 2 metre mark, Felicity watched the echo sounder and the Beacon never seemed to go past us. The sandbank should only have been a mile wide but it seemed to go on for much longer and the Naze tower to be just as far away from us. Eventually we were over and at 18.30 passed the Medusa. The Naze seemed now right above us with Harwich only a stone’s throw away, and long distance Ajax races round the Medusa suddenly became very puny things! Even so, I remember thinking that the mermaids of the Goodwins could equally well migrate northwards to entice us on to the Cork and that the nearest I’ve been to a sticky end was between a barge and a bridge in Groningen — beware calm waters as much as the green combers!
The wind was dying on us as we passed a silent Beach End but our speed had beaten the turn of the tide so that we were still plugging the last of the ebb. 19.15 and the drinks were due to start at 19.00, but all the same 6 hours for thirty-eight and a half miles seemed not too bad going.
We needed all our patience now to beat up from Shotley Spit to Ganges pier in the gathering dusk, down to one and a half metres at each inwards tack and out again until we were stopped in the tide on the outer leg. At 20.10 we found a mooring at Shotley Gate by the end of the hard, handed all sail, lowered the ensign and rowed ashore. It had been a long afternoon’s sail but a good one and it had given us confidence for the future that a weekend’s cruise over to the other side of the Thames Estuary, when you’re prepared to stay the other end if need be, is really a very viable proposition. [Afternote, 2005 – how on earth did we manage to get from Shotley to Erwarton for the party!?]
On Sunday morning it was blowing a good breeze and we needed the outboard to get all our boxes ashore at Shotley, where David’s father kindly drove Felicity back to Holbrook and she did a magnificent job sorting and clearing out the mangled remains of our stores.
David and I had a very fast run down to Shotley Spit surfing two or three times over the tide, and an equally swift fetch up the Orwell, Merlin seeming quite a different kind of wizard without her cruising gear in the bows. At the same time, though, she felt more of an Ajax again and less of a seagoing yacht and we had to pinch ourselves to remember if we really had been at Veere with her ten days before. Nevertheless, when we left her on her mooring at Pin Mill, the antifouling showing blue around her waterline once more, we felt she knew she was no longer just any old Ajax and would hold her own with the cruisers just as well.